It is inspiring there is such strong interest in Dhamma in Bangkok. It takes a lot of work from a number of volunteers to set up these meetings, and months of planning, so we know it is worthwhile when there is strong interest. This is the first time at Wat Yannawa, and there will always be some difficulties arise – but we can learn each week and make the following meeting somewhat smoother. We have no big organisation behind us, so it is up to all of us to try and self organise regarding things like fans or seating arrangements, and to have patience with the difficulties that arise. The brand new sound system, bought Thursday afternoon, over cooked itself in its first hour of use. Everything is impermanent for sure, but less than an hour?? Oh well.
We can move the entrance to the side door so latecomers are not distracting attention, and put some seats on the roof for afterwards – there was ice water available outside. We have no authority at the temple so must accept whichever room they give us. Hopefully we can use the larger and cooler room on the second floor in the following weeks – but check on the desk at the exhibition which room we will be using; it will be on the second or third floor.
Attached are the notes from the Talk. The Elephant’s Footprint sutta is a typical description of the path to Enlightenment in Theravada Buddhism. The full sutta, for the scholarly minded, can be read online by clicking here: The thrust of the sutta is that all these practises are signposts that one is on the right path. It is interesting to consider in a modern context.
Schools of Buddhism
There are many, many schools of Buddhism these days, and they all kind of feel they are the ‘right’ way, and that other systems have misunderstood somehow. Looking through the list of 10 parts of the path in the attached document, shows that the original outline was very inclusive.
Research and learning have a role in the first clause – hearing the Dhamma from a teacher. This is important because if your parents and teachers have not pointed out to you the subtleties of how the mind actually works, or suggested you investigate on an experiential level the deeper silence of the mind, then you will be blind to it.
The second clause is curious – in that time and situation, ordination was considered the natural way to practise. Is that relevant today? Do you have to be a monk? Although some schools try to go ‘back to basics’ we really have to accept that ‘Buddhism’ has outgrown its original context. It could well be these days that you are better practising meditation as a layperson, or that the monastery is not the ideal environment it originally was. The Buddha taught meditation to renunciate monks and nuns in the forest – but now it is a multinational religion with a role to play in many fields.
A basic morality is essential for stabilising the mind and character, as will be discussed in week 2. Being content with little, the fourth item in the list, is a real skill, especially in the modern day when we are encouraged to get more, have more, earn more, and buy more. How do you become content? It is all very well to praise ‘being content with little’ but how do you actually do it? Most people would rather buy a few hours of pleasure with money, than be content with less than they have. Forest temples today emphasise this teaching, and the monks really do make do with very little. 2500 years ago, Maha Kassapa, one of the Buddha’s main disciples, was known for his extreme asceticism – which shows that even in that context, there were different levels you can take these ideas.
Clauses 5 and 6 relate to the cornerstone of Buddhist Practise – Mindfulness. Quite how this works, and why it is so valued will be related in the upcoming talk The Gatekeeper. The following clauses relate to concentration meditation, which appears throughout the suttas. Sometimes these days, modern schools play down concentration meditation for various reasons. Generally, people are more interested in Vipassana (Insight) approaches which cultivate wisdom and peace.
7 and 8 are about concentration meditation (samadhi) developed to a high level. Although these appear higher up on the list they can be developed by anyone to a certain level, and can create a sense of peace and release even at lower levels. Further, many people are naturally able to concentrate even to the high levels – so do not discount yourself from this practise. Practically every time the Path is described, concentration appears in a vital role.
The 9th clause is interesting. Are there really heaven and hell realms? Can you really remember your past lives? Are there people who can do this? All valid questions, that are universally ignored by modern Buddhism. It is true that you do not need to worry about the past and the future, and that you have enough troubles dealing with this realm already without being burdened with other realms you cannot see. The practise is here and now. On the other hand, this is a constituent part of the teachings, and shows the scope of the mind that has perfected meditation practise. Just because it is a tricky subject does not mean that it should be homogenised out of Buddhism.
The other meaning of the ‘Elephant’s Footprint’ is that all other teachings fit inside it, just as the footprints of all animals can fit inside that of an elephant. Is this still true today? We have lots of newer methods and meditations by all kinds of gurus, living and dead. Christian mystics, Sufi saints, and modern varieties such as Krishnamurti or Eckhart Tolle. From the context of the age, ‘other teachings’ referred to the bands of ascetic seekers that were wondering the forests of India 2500 years ago, and to the three Vedas that were taught in the Brahmical schools. On the other hand, if one looks deep enough, there are roots of all spiritual practises to be found in the suttas. Certainly though, the schools of Tich Naht Hanh, Zen, Forest temples etc.. are all within the outline given above – just emphasising compassion or asceticism, meditation or mindfulness etc to different degrees.